How To Do Cluster Training
Updated: May 14
Figuring out how to do cluster training and optimally integrate it into my own personal training and workouts has been a priority for me (pre-pandemic anyway) for the last year.
Cluster training was intriguing to me and I saw the potential benefits of incorporating it...but it is a bit confusing and there are a lot of different prescriptions for it out there.
But you can only learn by doing and applying...not just reading about it. I feel I’ve done enough cluster training now-and made enough mistakes-to intelligently share my thoughts on it in the hopes of helping other strength training enthusiasts enhance their own training.
So let’s start off with a brief overview of cluster training and why it’s such an effective tool to add to your strength training tool box.
What Is Cluster Training?
In a nutshell, cluster training is method where you, for lack of a better term, “break up” a set of an exercise into micro or mini sets with short rest periods (10-30 seconds) between each micro set.
For instance, think about a doing a seated row for 10 reps with a maximum weight (10 rep max). Instead of doing an all out set of 10 (you could not do an 11th rep), you could “cluster” the set into multiple mini sets of 3 reps, taking about 20 seconds in between. It might look like this:
Mini set #1: 3 reps
20 second rest
Mini set #2: 3 reps
20 second rest
Mini set #3: 3 reps
20 second rest
Mini set #4: 3 reps (now it’s getting hard)
20 second rest
Mini set #5: 3 reps (you hit muscular failure)
Why Is This Effective?
Simple: overload. In the above example, you’ve now accumulated 15 total reps with a weight you’d normally only be able to lift 10 times before exhaustion in a straight/normal set. This is a “win" and sends a strong stimulus to the target muscles. You accumulate more training volume with a heavier load than you’d normally be able to use.
If you are a strength training beginner, basic progressive overload (adding weight or reps using straight sets) will serve you well for a couple years. However, at some point, basic progressive overload will slow down and there will be a point of diminishing returns (this is not to say you should abandon it...you shouldn’t). Once you reach an intermediate stage, learning how to do cluster training will ramp up your results and keep the strength gains coming.
“How Often and For How Many Exercises Should I Use Clusters on?"
Cluster training sounds great doesn’t it? So why not use it all the time?
In short, if used too frequently-or on too many exercises-it will chew you up. It can be deceptively stressful and can be hard on your recovery.
Remember, with clusters, you are performing more reps with a heavier weight than you’re supposed to be able to get with that weight, so it’s a technique the needs to be used in short blocks (3-4 weeks at a time).
I’d recommend using clusters only on one exercise in your workouts. Also-and this is in opposition to what other fitness experts say-I’d avoid using clusters on technique-heavy barbell exercises like squats, deadlifts, bent over rows, presses, etc. I like clusters for seated and lying dumbbell exercises, isolation exercises, and machine and cable exercises.
Cluster Training Protocols
I gave a very generic example of a cluster training method above, so here are a few more options:
Cluster Training Option 1 (Strength Focus)
Choose a weight you can do for 3 reps, but do clusters of 1 rep, resting about 20 seconds between. Do this 5 times. Rest around 3:00 and then do it again. 2 rounds is plenty
Cluster Training Option 2 (Strength/Size Focus)
Choose a weight you can normally do 15 reps to failure with and do 6 sets of 4 reps, resting 10-20 seconds between. This is a form of cluster training known as “muscle rounds”.
This is fairly brutal. You’ll probably find 1 round of muscle rounds is plenty. If you want to do 2, I’d advise reducing the rep goal per set down to 3.
It’s worth noting, on the 6th set, do as many reps as possible, even it’s more than 4 reps. This will allow you to gauge your weight selection and how to progress for the coming workouts. If you can get 6-8 reps on your 6th set, you went too light and underestimated your 15 RM.
Cluster Training Option 3 (Strength/Size Focus)
Probably my favorite way to do clusters for hypertrophy. It’s a nice mix of volume and load.
This is the exact same format as option 2 above, but this time, use a 12 rep max weight and do 6 sets of 3. Same advice applies.
Cluster Training Option 4 (Strength/Size Focus)
7/4/2-3 cluster. I picked this up from John Meadows. Choose a 10 rep max weight and do 7 reps. Rest 20 seconds and try to get 4 more. Rest 20 seconds and try to get as many more as you can, shooting for at least 2-3 on the last mini-set.
With this cluster option, you work closer to your rep max on the first mini-set (notice in the first few I laid out you are doing 1/4-1/3 of your rep max for the mini-sets). So, the perceived exertion on the first round is going to be harder, but you still end up getting 13-14+ reps with a weight you could normally only do 10 times.
How To Progress Clusters
There are many ways to progress week-to-week with clusters:
Keep the number of mini-sets constant but slowly start to add reps to a couple sets over time. Example, on option #2 above, you could go from 6 sets of 4 to 1 set of 5 and 5 sets of 4, then to 2 sets of 5 and 4 sets of 4, etc., over the course of many workouts
Keep the reps per set the same but try to add a mini-set or 2 over time, first for a reduced number of reps, and then building up to the full number. Using option #2 again as an example, you could start at 6 sets of 4, the next workout 6x4 + 1x2, the next 6x4 + 1x3, etc. until you are doing 7 sets of 4.
Keep the number of mini-sets and the reps per mini-set constant but add load.
Some combination of all of the above
You could do a 2nd cluster set resting 3 minutes or so between (starting at a reduced number of reps per mini-set on the 2nd round and building up)
If you want to learn about and dive into how to do cluster training even more, I’d recommend reading the 2 articles from strength coach Christian Thibaudeau below:
Cluster training is a great tool to add to your strength training toolbox. If you are at an intermediate/advanced stage with your training and physique, definitely give this a shot and expect the gains to keep coming. I hope this article gave you a nice overview and some valuable ideas about how to do cluster training.